Telegraph Group joins Gadarene rush with folding of Sunday title into 7-day operation

March 13, 2013

Telegraph 7-day operationThe newspaper is dead, and the Telegraph’s decision to merge its daily and Sunday titles into a 7-day-a-week operation is yet another nail in its coffin. Long live the free press.

By “free press” I mean not the plutocratic oligarchy (absent the Guardian and Observer owning Scott Trust) that maintains a diminishing stranglehold over printed national news, but that other sense of free – “free of charge”. The internet, with Google algorithms in the vanguard, is slowly, inexorably, doing what no politician could ever do: it is breaking down the cartel.

No qualitative judgement is made or implied about this being a Good Thing for the advancement of civilised values. Indeed, on balance, it may well be a bad thing. Just as there is no such thing as a free lunch, so there is no such thing as free journalism. If we are all able, in a matter of moments, to find out what is going on by tapping a few words into a search box at virtually no cost who, exactly, is going to pay for the many hours of sweat, journalistic nous and training that went into crafting the news item in the first place?

It’s a conundrum that digital content strategists frequently explain away by reference to the woolly wisdom of “creative destruction”. Darwinian metaphor is highly misleading, however. Paper dinosaurs may well be on their way to destruction. But there is nothing inevitable about the evolution of a genus of fleet-footed digital mammals to take their place. The ways of evolution are multiform, mysterious and rarely linear. While it is entirely understandable that legacy media institutions should present themselves as the natural guarantors of smooth transition, the reality (with the possible exception of such venerable specialist titles as the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal) may be very different. More likely there will be a period of chaotic evolutionary stasis before something commercially semi-vertebrate emerges anew from the economic goo.

I mention all this after briefly reviewing the latest set of national newspaper circulation figures (ABCs). My, how the mighty have tumbled. The Guardian, for example, shed 5.31% in just one month (February) Admittedly this followed a price hike, but the circulation figure is now around 193,586 which – as MediaWeek reminds us – is The Guardian’s lowest headline figure since records began, in 1949. The paper is worried about having breached a psychological barrier, even after sales were pumped by a recent BBH ad campaign. Not so long ago, I seem to remember that psychological barrier was 400,000, not 200,000.

Guardian print circulation may be in freefall, but its trend is by no means atypical. The Sun on Sunday is down nearly 5% month on month, representing a 41% collapse since Rupert Murdoch phoenixed it last year out of the ashes of The News of The World. The Sunday Express has descended below 500,000; The Mirror is barely achieving 1 million; The Sun itself, not so long ago hovering around the 3 million mark, is now gliding towards 2 million. Only the i – a scarcely economic 20p news digest – managed an increase, and that a miserly 1.45% to just shy of 300,000. Those with a head for historical statistics might like to note that its host, The Independent, now boasts a circulation of no more than 75,000. Even The Sunday Times – psychological barrier once 1 million – is now drifting down to 875,000.

In light of this dismal picture, it is no surprise to find The Sunday Telegraph (February ABC: 429,346) huddling closer to The Daily Telegraph (541,036) for warmth. As with the Sun, Mirror and The Independent 7-day operations that have preceded it, the rhetoric of the Telegraph’s transformation is radical and upbeat. The grim reality – and ultimate rationale for the move – is jobs lost. And with them, irreplaceable experience.

Murdoch MacLennanTrue, the headline figure of 80 print jobs out of 550 editorial staff being culled is not the whole picture. It emerges that Telegraph Group chief executive Murdoch MacLennan (left) will offset some of these losses with 50 “new digitally-focused jobs” – including a new position, director of content who will sit over both editors – and inject £8m into his “number one” priority of completing “our transition into a digital business.”

No matter how many time he incants the mantra “digital business”, MacLennan is unlikely – any more than his rivals who have trodden the same primrose path – to extricate his titles from the financial doldrums. The damage to the brand – particularly the Sunday brand – with its more considered, investigative magazine-like approach – is likely to be considerable. The strategic upside, after an initial financial up-tick, on the other hand is doubtful. Expect to see more circulation decline once disappointed Sunday readers reject the graft.

On the face of it, digital global readers, in whose name all this 7-day stuff is being done, look a worthy prize. For a start, there are lots of them. In January, for example, The Telegraph’s website traffic (by no means the most voluminous among newspaper brands) grew 11% over the previous month to 3,129,599 – the sort of circulation figure that no UK newspaper has been able to boast of for a very long time. But it’s fool’s gold. Digital readers are fickle and rather more likely to be driven by search than brand loyalty. Advertisers have recognised this by tightening their wallets. As former Google CEO Eric Schmidt long ago observed, there’s no better way of turning advertising dollars into cents than migrating to digital publishing. Nor, for the aforementioned reason of declining brand loyalty, are paywalls a viable financial alternative. Unlike the customers of banks, digital readers do have a choice. And they’re using it.

On the other hand, senior newspaper management cannot be seen to be doing nothing. They must inject energy and excitement into a task which, increasingly, looks as suicidal as the rush of the Gadarene swine.

How long before The Observer and Guardian – estimated to be losing about £50m a year – follow the same headlong path?

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Barclays bully should do his homework on Stonewall’s Bigot of the Year award

November 1, 2012

Tonight’s the night. The night, that is, when we finally discover who has won the much-uncoveted title of Bigot of the Year at the Stonewall annual awards.

Stonewall being a charity dedicated to promoting the civil rights of gays, lesbians and bisexuals, it requires little to imagine what kind of bigot might qualify for this category. Take any ante-diluvian churchman or off-guard Tory politician and you’re practically there as far as the longlist goes.

So far, so dull. But wait. This year, sponsors have decided to spice up the awards – by threatening to pull out if Stonewall goes ahead and announces a Bigot of the Year winner.

Coutts (RBS-owned, but sshh, don’t mention that to any of its wealthy customers) – which is only a category sponsor (the anodyne Writer of the Year) has already pulled its delegation from tonight’s hoe-down. And Barclays – which, rather more challengingly appears to be a general sponsor – has threatened to terminate its financial commitment.

Mark McLane, managing director and head of Global Diversity and Inclusion at Barclays told The Telegraph: “I have recently been made aware of the inclusion of a ‘Bigot of the Year’ category in the awards. Let me be absolutely clear that Barclays does not support that award category either financially, or in principle and have (sic) informed Stonewall that should they decide to continue with this category we will not support this event in the future. To label any individual so subjectively and pejoratively runs contrary to our view on fair treatment, and detracts from what should be a wholly positively focused event.”

So, righteous fulmination at the underhand introduction of a new category, eh, Mark? Well not quite. Some swift desk research, which even someone as grand as a managing director and head of Global Diversity and Inclusion might deign to do before opening his mouth, would reveal that Bigot of the Year has been a staple of the Stonewall awards since 2006. And, even more interestingly, Barclays itself seems to have supported the self-same awards since 2009. Now I know that there has been a lot of staff churn at Barclays recently and corporate memory tends to be – at the best of times – short. Even so, wakey, wakey, Mark. Or is Stonewall so low down the list of sponsorable causes that you simply haven’t noticed it before?

Either way, Stonewall should sack Barclays before Barclays sacks Stonewall. With friends like that… Surely corporate bullying is just the sort of thing Stonewall is trying to stamp out?


Cook acts after Browett upsets the Apple cart with half-baked retail recipe

October 30, 2012

The surprise is not that John Browett, former Dixons CEO and Tesco high-flier, quit Apple after only 6 months. The surprise is he wasn’t fired earlier: or indeed that he was hired at all.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Browett’s retail skills, in their place. Which is, or was, running a British high street retailer; not at the helm of the retail arm of a global corporation fanatically dedicated to innovative product launches and superior customer service.

The announcement of Browett’s departure, which coincides with – but is only tangentially connected to – the sacrificial dispatch of Scott Forstall, head of iPhone software (for the horlicks he made of the new Maps app), has been greeted with widespread “told-you-so” cynicism. And nowhere more articulately than in the comments section of The Telegraph online.

My own favourite? Quote from Mr Cook : ‘Mr Browett had a commitment to customer service “like no one else we’ve met.” ‘ Similar to Morecambe and Wise writing: ‘We shall tell all our friends’ in the visitors’ book at a particularly awful Blackpool b&b.

Quite. The fault lies not so much with Browett (who is in any case going to walk away with much of his £36m golden hello intact) for initiating ‘pile it high and flog it cheap’ tactics – the only thing he knows – but with Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook. Whatever was he thinking of when he made the appointment late last year? Browett is the complete antithesis of everything Apple stands for.

It’s not about command-and-control retail structures where costs are minutely controlled. It is about money-being-no-object where customer service is concerned. It’s also about silo’ed autonomy, something alien to Browett’s own retail culture.

Cook can chalk this one down to inexperience. But it does make you wonder whether he’s got a sufficient measure of the “vision thing”.



“Silly” remark by Everything Everywhere chief lets slip truth about T-Mobile brand

October 26, 2011

Dear Mr Swantee

How do these female Telegraph journalists do it? Trap you into saying things you didn’t really mean to say, that is? Not many months ago, Mr Cable was silly enough to tell two such hackettes that Mr Murdoch’s empire was thoroughly evil and that he was going to put a stop to it, just when he was supposed to be impartially adjudicating the self-same Mr Murdoch’s bid for BSkyB.

Now you, too, have been very silly. Or, to be more precise, you have been caught rubbishing Everything Everywhere, the brand name of the company where you are chief executive.

Here are the very words you used, as reported by the delightful Katherine Rushton:

“Everything Everywhere is not a brand, it’s a silly name with a stopping effect”, he said, although he maintained it was useful for stores which house the two mobile brands.”

Now I know what you’re going to say; in fact what you have said: just like poor old Vince, you were quoted out of context. His context was entrapment; yours we’re going to work on a bit – just in case there’s any misunderstanding.

The first thing I’d like to make clear is that we are all right behind you. Not only do we admire the candour of someone in so senior and responsible a position voicing what we have all long since judged to be a self-evident truth (just, as it happens, we did with Mr Cable). We are also quite prepared to accept that journalists, with their obsession for compression, tend to miss the bigger picture.

I expect, when you were describing your corporate brand as “silly”, what you were really doing was employing a bit of time-honoured rhetorical licence: using the part as shorthand for the whole. It’s not Everything Everywhere the brand that is “silly” with “a stopping effect”, but the brand strategy behind it. That, surely, is the bigger picture that got left out of the context.

Right from the beginning, that brand strategy has been misconceived, hasn’t it?

I mean, the initial idea was all right as far as it went: putting together 2 failing UK mobile telecoms brands in one brand-new holding company and, overnight, transforming yourself into UK leader by customers, ahead of those snake-oil people at O2. What a clever sleight of hand, and one that avoided Orange and T-Mobile experiencing serious difficulty with the competition authorities into the bargain.

The trouble is, your predecessor Tom Alexander wasn’t empowered by his twin masters, France Télécom and Deutsche Telekom, to take the idea any further – and you were left to clear up the mess that resulted. 50:50 ventures never work, do they? Still, you’ve done what you can, within the agreed terms. You’ve swept away all those unnecessary backroom boys and girls, stripped out excess infrastructure, rationalised the shops, brushed up the margins, cleansed the boardroom of useless, nay-saying, former T-Mobile executives and ploughed on with a leaner, meaner Orange team. Yes, Sirree, having worked at HP before you joined France Télécom, you know just about everything there is to know about consolidating tired, low-growth companies.

But one thing they haven’t let you do is to slay the elephant in the room. Yes, I know what you said when you took over earlier this year:

“The T-Mobile customers want a flexible payment and usage system. The Orange customers want a predictable amount paid every month. There is a clear difference.”

But the justification for that difference is becoming less and less apparent, isn’t it? Look at your latest, Q3, figures: pre-paid, plummeting; contracts up. T-Mobile’s days as a UK brand are surely numbered.

Truth to tell, Orange is and always has been much the stronger brand; better serviced too. Maybe, if there hadn’t been all that fudging at the beginning by your corporate masters, then the figures would have been a lot more convincing than they are today. And your brand hierarchy a lot more coherent. Without T-Mobile to worry about, poor old Tom would never have had a nervous breakdown trying to justify the vacuous sticking-plaster of Everything Everywhere – as the best of all branding in the best of possible worlds, when it patently wasn’t.

No wonder you let slip your frustration with a “silly”, unguarded remark.


BSkyB – nearly the company with the UK’s biggest marketing budget

January 4, 2011

Will BSkyB soon become the UK’s biggest marketing company? It’s a sobering thought  – especially for those who, like culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, must now consider whether Rupert Murdoch and his son James are fit and proper guardians of the 61% of the broadcast media company they do not already own. What will they do with unfettered control of all that money – not so much when it is directed at ITV and the BBC (the case already), but at BSkyB’s non-broadcast rivals?

In fact, BSkyB is still some way from being the company with the biggest marketing budget. The latest Nielsen figures, which leaked out just before Christmas in The Telegraph, reveal that BSkyB has now moved into number two position behind Procter & Gamble in the advertisers’ league table: not quite the same thing, but the most reliable indicator we have in these matters. The main casualty – inevitably given what has happened to it – is the Central Office of Information. For some years the COI sat on, or very near, the top of the pile. Its fall from grace has been melodramatic: despatched from top to fifth place, with spending slashed 47% to settle – for now at – £112m. There’s no likelihood of it getting back.

BSkyB, on the other hand, increased its spend 20% to reach £161m. But even that wasn’t nearly enough for it to become top dog in the near future. P&G put on another third – giving it an unassailable lead at £189m. Unless of course BT, currently 7th with a spend of £104m, continues its phenomenal 44% multiplication of spend for the next three years (unlikely, I suggest).

These Nielsen figures are interesting indicators, but they need to be viewed with considerable caution. Although they purport to record expenditure to the end of the calendar year, there are a number of caveats; for example, there is no internet spend included for the last quarter (a significant omission). They are, moreover, merely a ratecard indicator: they do not tell us what was actually spent after discount. Finally, they do not record all forms of marketing activity. And some of these excluded sectors, like POP, are absolutely massive.

For all these imperfections, however, the Nielsen figures reveal a remarkable truth. BSkyB has become one of the UK’s most powerful companies, and it has done so in large measure through the intelligent application of marketing.


Vince hands BSkyB to Murdoch on a platter

December 21, 2010

It would appear the Scourge of Capitalism (aka business secretary Vince Cable) was bent on doing exactly what I earlier predicted. That is, committing a gross act of hypocrisy – in the clandestine manner of the bankers he so despises – by rigging the market to get the result he wanted.

This is the only reasonable interpretation of his unguarded remarks to two Telegraph undercover reporters about “declaring war on Mr Murdoch”. He is of course referring to his supposedly impartial role in adjudicating the acceptability of NewsCorp’s bid for the 61% of BSkyB it does not already own. For the avoidance of doubt the guileless minister of the crown went on to explain to the two reporters – posing as constituents: “I have blocked it [the bid] using the powers that I have got and they are legal powers that I have got…”.

Actually, that last bit is a tad premature. Ofcom is not supposed to report back on whether there is a prima facie case for referral to the Competition Commission until December 31st. But Vince was clearly confident that he had Ofcom in his pocket and could press ahead with a referral on the public interest grounds of an infringement of “media plurality”. The beauty of such grounds is that they reside entirely in the realm of political value judgement rather than the rigorously factual analysis of any threat to competition. And given that Cable would have had the final word, Murdoch & Co were clearly going to be thwarted.

No longer. Vince is off the case (indeed, he is off any adjudication of media competition cases from now on), although he has narrowly managed to retain his job. And culture media and sport secretary Jeremy Hunt will take his place. As a Tory, Hunt does not carry Cable’s Lib Dem ideological baggage; and if he does harbour any personal animosity towards the Murdoch clan it has so far remained scrupulously off the record.

Which is just as well. In the circumstances he will find it politically excruciating to deliver the thumbs down. The European Commission has just waved through the bid on competition grounds. That leaves the public interest argument. But this, too, is looking increasingly shaky when assessed on any fair-minded basis – as it will have to be in the wake of Cablegate. The legal precedent was set when the last government forcibly caused BSkyB to divest most of its 18% stakeholding in ITV. Ironically, the stated grounds were that NewsCorp’s then 39% holding in BSkyB posed a threat to UK media plurality. If you’re already a threat to media plurality when you hold a controlling 39% interest in a company, how is owning the rest of the shares going to make a material difference?

As political fiascos go, this is a corker. The Scourge of Capitalism has ended up performing a humiliating act of public self-flagellation. In the process, he has damaged Ofcom’s independence and almost certainly brought about the result he most feared: the strengthening of Rupert Murdoch’s commercial interests.

En passant, he has also damaged The Telegraph – one of his allies in the Murdoch matter, if no other; although Cable can hardly be blamed for that. The Telegraph deliberately suppressed Cable’s anti-Murdoch comments, presumably on the grounds that they harmed its commercial interests. Only because some nameless Assangeite felt that editorial integrity had been inexcusably compromised did the scoop come into the capable hands of BBC business editor Robert Peston.

I bet they’re laughing up their sleeves at Osterley Park and Wapping. I can’t say I blame them.


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